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How will Spags change the Saints' defense?
This really should be the greatest concern for the Who Dat Nation because — with or without Payton — it's a good bet the Saints won't lose games because of their offense. At least, not in the way the Black and Gold lost last season's divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.
San Francisco exposed the Saints' defense as being too slow up the middle and taking too many chances with a suspect secondary. Aside from Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer, the Saints are starved for proven young talent among defensive backs. Roman Harper is coming off one of his worst seasons (as far as missed tackles are concerned) and the rest of the Saints secondary is filled with young, inexperienced players. On top of that, Jonathan Vilma's suspension means the Saints come into this season with three brand-new linebackers.
There is good news, though. NFL scouts consider free agent pickups Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne to be as good if not better than Vilma, which means the Saints may be able to maintain or improve their 12-ranked rushing defense.
There's more good news. For those with bad long-term memory, it's useful to look back at the last time Spagnuolo was a defensive coordinator. In 2007, he was leading what had been a group of no-name New York Giants defenders in a pummeling of the then-undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
What do Giants fans remember about Spagnuolo?
Ed Valentine, editor of the venerable Giants blog Big Blue View (www.bigblueview.com), says his most vivid recollections of the defensive coordinator was his "fiery demeanor on the sideline" and his "no-holds-barred approach to defense." When asked whether Spagnuolo could take a Saints defense with many new faces and work them into a successful and imposing unity, Valentine was succinct: "He's up to the challenge."
So no shortcomings or potential frustrations with Spags, like some fans had with Williams?
"I think you would have to ask St. Louis fans what frustrated them about Spagnuolo," he replied.
But will the coaching even matter if Bountygate continues to be a distraction?
Goodell's punishment of the Saints for the pay-for-play schemes has been the biggest Saints-related story during the offseason. Vilma is fighting the NFL in federal court to get his suspension overturned.
Gabe Feldman, director of Tulane University's sports law program, has followed Vilma's suit against the NFL and has sat in on a few hearings. Feldman told Gambit that Vilma faces an uphill battle, but one that could have lasting repercussions for the entire NFL. "The big-picture fight here is about the scope of the commisioner's powers," Feldman said.
Vilma and the Saints are beholden to a collective bargaining agreement between NFL players and owners that gave the commissioner "extremely broad powers." In other words, Goodell has complete authority to punish players for actions he believes are detrimental to the league. The problem for Vilma is that the Saints basically admitted they broke NFL rules and that some sort of pay-for-play scheme was in place.
What Vilma, Brees, Payton, Vitt and anyone wearing Black and Gold in Louisiana has argued is that what the Saints did was a violation of the salary cap, not an on- or off-field violation that merited disciplinary action from the commissioner. Where Goodell says the Saints were paying players to injure opponents, the Saints argue they paid players to "make plays."
Regardless, it's clear Goodell is out to change the culture of football to serve the interest of the league and its product, Feldman said. "This is more about the health and safety of [the NFL's] players and the health and safety of their products," he said. "Football is an inherently dangerous game. But the league can take steps to make it safer."
Goodell's policies — and Goodell himself — may not be popular, but Feldman believes the commissioner is working in the best interest of the league. While Brees says that no player can trust the commissioner and Vilma's lawsuit seeks to strike a blow against Goodell's authority, Feldman says federal judges are never eager to overturn bylaws established in collective bargaining agreements between private entities. Right now, NFL bylaws make Goodell judge, jury, executioner and appeals judge all in one. And it doesn't appear that will change any time soon.
So is Goodell using his evil powers to keep the Saints from playing in the 2013 Super Bowl in the Superdome?
Of all the insane message board conspiracy theories, the idea that Goodell came down on the Saints for Bountygate so New Orleans wouldn't have a team in the Super Bowl — and, thus, two other teams with traveling fanbases would give the NFL more money — is as ridiculous as it sounds.
The Super Bowl is practically a national holiday. People from all over the country will descend on New Orleans regardless of who is playing for the Lombardi Trophy, because it's one of the biggest media events of the year. The reason Goodell came down on the Saints is because the franchise broke the rules and thumbed its nose at him in the process.
What Who Dats everywhere really should fear: The past 11 teams that have hosted a Super Bowl have not only failed to play in the big game, but didn't even make it to the playoffs. The last team that came close to playing the Super Bowl on its home field was the 2000 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost in the NFC wild card playoff round. There are many reasons why no team has been able to play a Super Bowl on their home field — injuries, bad luck, lack of talent, overwhelming pressure — but the commissioner going out of his way to sabotage a team's season is not one of them.
The Saints are in the unique position in which they face no pressure to be Super Bowl champs or even make the playoffs. In a way, Goodell has given the Saints a perfect alibi should the team perform poorly this season. After all, what is an NFL team without its head coach?
Brees and the Saints have used the "Us versus the world" mentality as motivation, repeating how unfair the suspensions are. In many ways, they're taking a page out of the New England Patriots' playbook. Facing stiff penalties from Goodell for their own cheating scandal, the 2006 Patriots went on to have an undefeated season, though they fell short of winning a title.
With the $100 million man at the lead, the Saints are looking to do that Patriots team one better by being the first team to win a Super Bowl on its home field — without its head coach and right in front of the man suspended that coach.
That would be true football history.